Q&A: DAVE MCGILLIVRAY, BOSTON MARATHON RACE DIRECTOR (PART I)

NEWS & RECORD

Michael Jordan tells a story about not making a high school varsity basketball team. He wasn't tall enough.

Dave McGillivray is like Michael Jordan in that regard, once being cut from a high school basketball team in Medford, Mass. At 5 feet 4, he wasn't tall enough.

Jordan, of course, became a giant in basketball. McGillivray has become a giant, too, but in the sport of running.

McGillivray, 64, the race director for the Boston Marathon, will be the guest speaker Saturday at the Twin City Track Club's Winter Seminar in Winston-Salem. Tickets are still available and will offer participation in a group run Saturday morning then the social, dinner and McGillivray's presentation at night.

To try to capture McGillivray's import to running with a single, simple phrase, "race director for the Boston Marathon," would be a mistake. Among a long and impressive list of his accomplishments:

  • Ran across the United States, 3,452 miles in 80 days, in 1978 to raise money for the Jimmy Fund, which supports adult and pediatric cancer care. He repeated the feat in a relay with nine others in 2004, raising $300,000 for five children's charities.

  • Completed his first of nine Ironman World Championship triathlons in 1980. His personal best is 10 hours, 36 minutes, 42 seconds.

  • Has competed in or run the Boston Marathon course 46 years in a row. Each year, after his duties on race day are in hand, McGillivray returns to the starting line in Hopkinton to run the course behind the marathon field.

  • Has completed 155 marathons (2:29:58 personal best).

  • Has completed the World Marathon Challenge of seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.

  • Has delivered motivational messages before nearly 2,000 audiences across the United States and in several countries; has written two books; and has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charitable causes.

  • Is president of DMSE Sports, which besides the Boston Marathon also manages the Falmouth Road Race, Beach to Beacon 10K, Mount Washington Road Race, Pittsburgh Marathon, Fenway Park Marathon and Gillette Stadium Marathon.

McGillivray is also coming off triple bypass heart surgery on Oct. 12. So he is slowly – and carefully – getting his running game back in shape before the 123rd Boston Marathon on April 15.

McGillivray spoke by phone recently. The first of two parts of our discussion is posted here, with a gallery of Associated Press images of McGillivray at the end of the text. The second half – about his love for fundraising, his favorite memories, the duties of directing Boston and who would play Dave McGillivray in the biopic, will be published on Running Shorts on Friday morning.

EW: This is a good question to greet anyone, but particularly relevant for you: How are you doing? How are you feeling?

McGillivray: "I'm feeling, relatively speaking, given what I've been through over the last few months, I feel really good. I'm running every day. Not far, but I'm out there. It's been (14 weeks) since my triple bypass. ... I'm running up to about 4-5 miles a day, with one or two walks thrown in just for safety measures. I don't want to push it too much. I'm left on my own to determine what I can do and what I shouldn't be doing in terms of how I feel. I'm trying to play the cautious route. But I'm seeing some pretty good progress, no ill effects, no pain."

EW: This would be the 47th year in a row that you've run the race, run the course. How do you see that unfolding leading up to April 15?

McGillivray: "Prior to my surgery, the one looming question I had of my heart surgeon, I said to him somewhat tongue-in-cheek, 'There's this little race in April that I've sort of suffered through a few times and I'm wondering once this whole episode is done with, do you think I'll be able to get my way from Point A to Point B?' He gave a response that resonates in my brain. He didn't say 'yes,' so he was non-committal, but he didn't say 'no.' But he did say, 'I'd be extremely disappointed if you couldn't do it.' ... That basically gave me hope. ...

"I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a long day. I've got to get up early and get out to the start and do what I do for the last 32 years in directing it. I'm on my feet for most of the day. I'm not eating. I'm not resting. And then I get in a vehicle and get driven back to the start and attempt to cover the 26.2. ... When I started it 32 years ago, I thought it was a good idea. I was in my 30s. Now I'm in my 60s. It gets a little bit more challenging as the aging process steps in. ...

"At the end of the day, the job's more important than the run, for sure. I have to be concerned about 30,000 people, not one. But this is important to me. The marathon has been a part of my life for about 75 percent of the time I've been on this planet. It's a personal thing, very personal. I always want to be an athlete. Yeah, I'm honored and flattered to direct it, but deep down inside, I want to be the runner. I want to be the person going from Hopkinton to Boston. I have a motto: 'It's my game, so it's my rules.' This is my thing."

EW: Your assessment of marathon running's popularity in the United States: A bear market, a bull market or somewhere in between?

McGillivray: "I think it's somewhere in between. The way I have, as a businessman in the industry who has put on over 1,000 races myself and have grown up with the sport and hopefully helped pioneer some of it, in the early years, you had the Boston Marathon and that was about it. There weren't a lot of other events. Then the 10K really came to being; that became the distance du jour. When philanthropy entered, it opened up a whole new level of potential candidates to participate in our industry. They started off with the 5K, then the graduated to the 10K, and then they moved up to the half. Then all of a sudden, the half marathon becomes the distance. Everybody wants to run a half. The marathon might be a bit too much. It might be the ultimate goal. But for a lot of people, they could almost cheat and run a half marathon; you can't cheat and run a full. So the half became the distance, the 10K started fading away, you have the 5K, you have the half. And there looms the marathon. Whenever an event management group wanted to put on a marathon, they would always put on a half with it because the marathon alone probably couldn't survive on its own. You have to have a half to support the full. You might have 4,000 run the half and 1,000 run the full.

"The marathon is still king. It rules. That's really what raises eyebrows and turns heads. That's the ultimate. That's the crown jewel. That's what people ultimately want to get. But once they're there and they participate in a handful of them, they realize it takes a lot of effort, a lot of time, a lot of commitment, a lot of sacrifice, even financial commitment, and the wear-and-tear on the human body is significant. And then they start to back off and go back to the half.

"I don't see the marathon being the most popular distance out there. I do see it being the ultimate goal of most runners. ... The iconic races, the races that have been around for a long time – Boston, Chicago, the world marathon majors – we're still selling out at record paces, as are the other majors. But I think the second- or third-tier marathons have taken a little bit of a hit. I think they're losing participation, 5, 10 percent, which is significant because they're looking for growth, not losing customers. It's going to be interesting to see where everything lands in the next five years because there's such a proliferation of events. Especially in the non-profit sector."

EW: The standards for getting into the Boston Marathon are now tighter. For runners who came so close, or who are bemoaning the goal posts moving, can you explain why it's necessary for the marathon to do that?

McGillivray: "The whole purpose for the standards to begin with was to control the field size. That's always been the reason for the standards. When the standards were set to control the field size, it almost worked against us – I wasn't around then, but against the BAA. But it became the phenomenon; that is, people now having a target and wanting to qualify for the Boston Marathon. It created more interest and attention than it did turn people away who didn't meet the standards. Then people had something to go after. So the standards kept changing because people kept meeting the standard. It got tighter and tighter and tighter to the point where at 40 years of age, the standard went as low as 2:50, which is pretty fast. ...

"And then the standards were set, and in the '90s, early 2000s, we really weren't filling up. The interest started being more the half than the full marathon. The race took seven months to fill. We'd open (registration) in September and we didn't close until March. We were open for months and months and months.

"All of a sudden (2007), we sold out at record pace, eight hours and three minutes and said, 'Hey, whoa, we've got to do something about this. There can't be a rush to the keyboard.' The whole idea of the Boston Marathon, generally speaking in the last 30 or 40 years, has been about pursuit of athletic excellence. We're not a race for everybody. And that's OK. It's OK to have one of those out of thousands. We're the Holy Grail. This is their Super Bowl, their Olympics. That's when we changed the whole registration process in terms of people registering early who beat the standard by a certain amount of time. Then we started understanding how many people have qualified, but we can't fit all of you into this race and we unfortunately have to turn some of you away. Then more and more people qualified because more and more people were running, and more and more people were enamored with Boston, and this past year we ended up having to have to turn away over 7,000 people who qualified. We don't want to do that!

"The idea is to make it fair, still maintain that pursuit of athletic excellence, but if in a perfect world we could have a situation where someone runs in a marathon and they beat the qualifying standard, they know that they're in the race. Not that they've got to wait until September to apply and then find out whether they made the cut or not. I don't want to disappoint all these people and turn them away. I'd rather tighten the standards. Now it's up to them to meet the new standard or not. If they don't, then they only have themselves to consider, not us.

"It remains to be seen what happens in the industry with regard to the five-minute tightening of the standard. Are people going to run even harder and train even harder, and are we still going to be faced with this conundrum of turning people away? Who knows? No one knows until it happens."